*Originally posted on Medium.
Two teenagers, one male driver and one female passenger, cut their headlights off once they park at their destination. There are molded leaves covering the cold, freshly dirty grounds. This has been the first car on the abandoned church premises in months. On the front lawn of the church, there is a weathered, decaying “FOR SALE” sign that sways gently against the harsh wind. No one in this small town wanted to buy a half-burned church, though. No one would even buy the entire lot — it would cost more to tear the building down than the property itself. Location, location, location — a phrase most realtors know to be true. The church was about twenty minutes out from the main town where everyone hung around, which bothered the 95% of the town’s population that attended church mass every Sunday at 9:30 AM. These were mostly the same people who were drinking late with their friends the night before. After the fire, the town agreed to invest in a place of worship in the main town instead of fixing up the far, old building. The church fire occurred a year prior to when these two passengers decided to visit, with the cause of the fire still undetermined. The locals speculate that a group of high school boys committed the crime, since they were always causing trouble late at night, but there was never any proof. The inside of the church was too ruined to fully examine, yet the back altar room was the only area to remain undestroyed, which seems impossible from an accidental fire. Still, no one knows anything.
There is much darkness surrounding the night, with the moon and stars offering little light. Both passengers feel nervous to leave their car, yet they made a commitment through the twenty-minute trip. Gas prices are rising these days, anyway. Through his blonde, shaggy hair, Jesse’s blue eyes turn to look at Marie and once they do, he smiles. She doesn’t know that he’s thinking about how nice her breasts look in her tightly cropped shirt, so she smiles back, assuming he’s nervous about entering the premises like her. She also doesn’t know that Jesse took her to the church because of a dare from his friends. Jesse likes Marie, sure, she is easily one of the hottest, yet non-popular girls in their small town, but he doesn’t want to court her at some old, abandoned graveyard. His friends, better known as “The Twins” by the majority of the town, are two brothers that carry a one-year age gap and coincidentally look identical. Karl and Kaleb spend most of their time with Jesse and vice versa, which led to an unimaginable brotherhood of crazy adventures throughout the years. There was never truth or dare, but rather dare or double dog dare. They were always getting into harmless fun, but as they began to grow into young adults their bets turned from licking a street sign to engaging in sexual activities in strange places; hence the abandoned church with the beautiful girl. Jesse began thinking about trying to have sex with Marie while he was scared, inside the church, but he could not imagine it. He could feel himself shrivel up at the thought of stepping foot inside the destroyed building. Ask anyone that knows him well, they’ll tell you that Jesse is the most paranoid nut one could find. He is always assuming the worst of every situation, but he claims he’s just seen a few too many scary movies. “What kinds?” people usually ask. “Every type. All of them,” he wistfully replies.
He wasn’t wrong. The Twins and Jesse would watch horror movies endlessly during their sleepovers as children. The Twins father owned an impressive movie collection, with now over a thousand films, but their father’s favorite kind to own were the ones that frightened him. Almost half of the extensive collection included horror, thriller, paranormal, or occult films. When they were children, The Twins and Jesse were fascinated with feeling fear. Wise beyond their years, Karl and Kaleb indulged fear as if it were happiness. Their rationale for this approach came verbatim from the words of their father, explaining, “A human can become invincible once that human has no fears. And what is the best way to stop being afraid? Engage with fear. If a child is afraid of a dog, we place a dog in the room, but far away to ease the stress of fear. With time, the child will feel comfortable enough to cuddle the dog because after observation, the child understands that it is the dominant species. There is nothing to fear.”
Jesse always enjoyed playing devil’s advocate, so he would respond, “Okay, so how does watching a ton of scary movies end your fear?”
Karl and Kaleb would glance at each other, which was close to looking in a mirror, then Kaleb would say, “You know how we’ve seen Stephen King’s 1990 version of IT so many times that we know everything that comes next, so it’s not really that scary? It’s like that.”
Rolling his clear, blue eyes, Jesse would say, “Those are just made up stories. If Pennywise came to Acklewood, y’all would be scared shitless.”
Karl, frustrated that Kaleb could not explain well enough so that Jesse could easily understand, quickly responded, “Maybe, but all three of us are no longer afraid of clowns. Remember after the first time we watched IT? Franky Husack had his second-grade birthday party and his uncle dressed up as a clown. We all looked at each other, grabbed a slice of cake, then biked home. Dad laughed at us for being so afraid and said we should try watching IT again. We did and after our third time, we all agreed that clowns were not scary. The clown was just the disguise, anyway.”
Jesse often thinks about these conversations. The Twins always seem to be so ready for the next challenge and never afraid of failure or death, while he feels increasingly anxious as he grows older. In fact, he is nervous right now with Marie. He was so deep in thought about the reason he is in this abandoned lot that he almost forgot he was there. Marie was smiling back at him, asking if he wants to go outside the car and explore. Jesse wants to tell her, no, he would rather be inside the car sucking on her tits instead, but he nods his head yes.
“What is the thing you are most afraid of?” Marie asks while Jesse grabs flashlights from his trunk. Jesse keeps survival tools in the back of his car, which he blames on his anxiety from watching so many horror films. You have the best chance of survival when you are prepared with resources, right?
“Flunking Mr. James’ calculus class. You?” Jesse jokingly replies. His aim is not to have an intense conversation in this graveyard, but Marie seems to enjoy going deep.
“No, seriously, what are you the most afraid of in this life?”
“How about I’ll tell you if you tell me,” Jesse says, assuming Marie would have some hesitation.
“Death. I mean, I believe in God and I believe in Heaven, but I also have believed many things that turned out to be wrong. I’m afraid of not being conscious, because I have so many thoughts and feelings that I cannot understand how I could just stop being,” Marie confidently explains.
Jesse feels surprised at Marie’s simple admittance of her fear, but also rather amazed at the way she so delicately explains herself. “That’s fair. You seem to be incredibly self-aware,” he says. Marie laughs, because she knows he is complimenting her to avoid talking about his fear.
“I spend a lot of time, alone, thinking. Now, I showed you mine, so you show me yours.”
“Ah, why do we have to talk about the scary stuff in the scary place?” Jesse playfully replies.
“The scary place is only scary when we talk about the scary stuff!” Marie has a point.
“Okay, fine. Honestly? My biggest fear is that something terrible will happen to me and I’ll go missing without a trace.”
“Why do you think that would happen to you?”
“You know how we had to read Into the Wild last year? I read that book and felt eerie. I think I related to Chris Mccandless, or at least the version of him that was described, but in a spiritual sense. Like maybe I had been him, maybe I had endured that before.”
“Okay, but, like Mccandless knew his death was coming. He wrote all those messages, saying how he was weak, remember? Do you wonder if you’re actually afraid of just knowing you’re about to die?” Marie, once again, has a point. Jesse is increasingly annoyed that she is pestering him about his fears in a place that causes fear, but nevertheless entertains her conversation. Both teenagers carry flashlights now, but Jesse suggests that they keep the car headlights on because the night is so dark.
Marie always loved that her small town would go black at night. When she lived in New York City, she never saw the stars. The light pollution and smog ruined that wholesome experience of viewing the stars in the summer’s night sky or catching lightning bugs. Living in Acklewood gave Marie the opportunity to live the childhood she always imagined.
Acklewood was nothing like living in Manhattan, there were almost no similarities. Marie was raised as a city girl, but she loved the outdoors and dirt like a country girl would. The city is always filled with endless opportunities and endless souls to engage, but the backwoods have the perfect spots for finding yourself.
When she moved here at the start of high school, mostly everyone in the town created rumors about why her family moved there. Insiders are always skeptical to outsiders, especially when there are rarely any outsiders. Some speculated that her family relocated because they were in Witness Protection, while others assumed that the big city was becoming too chaotic. No one brought up the money issue, though, which brought relief to Marie. Their country home was much larger than anything they’d ever owned in Manhattan, anyway.
Interrupting her thoughts, Jesse speaks, “Maybe I am afraid of knowing that I’m dying, but I don’t feel afraid of death. It’s natural and it happens to everyone, so there is no rationale in being afraid of something like that. There’s just no point.”
“Well, it’s nice to know that my fear is pointless,” Marie teases.
Jesse stumbles with an apology, then trips over a wooden stump hidden by rotting leaves. Naturally, Marie laughs. She thinks to herself that men are always unbalanced around her, but she never finds it as embarrassing. Marie has pictures of herself on her first birthday with scratches up and down her body because of her instinctual imbalance. Besides, Marie feels flattered when men become klutzy around her. She enjoys thinking that she is some misunderstood beauty they want to understand, mainly because there is some entertainment in watching a man struggle. Of course, this is something her mother taught her.
“Are we going in?” Jesse asks. Both teenagers glance at the tall, desecrated church, now in a clearer view with their flashlights and Jesse’s car headlights. The church looks the same as Jesse remembered it, only half-burnt with the lovely addition of explicit graffiti. Jesse always wondered what kind of sick fuck would burn down a place of worship, but now he wonders what kind of sick fuck would spray paint dicks and curse words onto a place of worship.
“People are disgusting,” Marie says, ignoring Jesse’s question. Their minds focus on the shock of seeing the once holy place turn into another abandoned lot. Marie remembers the church she worshipped at in the city and how her family stopped going when her mother cheated on her father with one of the members.
“I never liked church much, but I can’t imagine feeling right about painting ‘Jesus loves m(ycock)e’ onto the front of one,” Marie confesses. Jesse snickers, then reiterates his question about entering the church.
“Are we going or what?”
“Fine. I swear, though, I will kick your ass if you try any pranks. I always carry pepper spray and I’ve always wanted to use it.”
“Uh, I don’t know if we should hang out after tonight.”
“Hey, I’m not crazy, just safe,” Marie smiles at Jesse and he feels warm in his stomach from her beauty, which is the exact feeling he needs to enter this spooky place. Once the two teenagers push the church doors open, there is an immediate smell of decay, which certainly took away Jesse’s warm feeling.
“Dead bodies or just the wood?” Marie somewhat jokingly asks, as if she knows they are both thinking about the raunchy smell.
“Let’s be a little rational here. Maybe just dead animals? Maybe some of the local homeless people use it for a dumpster? Maybe it is just the wood!”
“Well, we won’t know until we investigate. I’ve always wanted to go into an abandoned place.”
“The more you talk, the more you sound like a serial killer,” Jesse jokes.
“Well, most serial killers tend to be white males. You beat me on that part,” Marie says.
“You found me out! I took you to this dirty, old shithole to murder you,” Jesse playfully says. He hopes she would understand his jokes, because most girls flip out when he says things like that, but Marie is unpredictable and unlike most girls.
“You shouldn’t curse in a church!” Marie fakes a gasp. Jesse laughs, then thinks to himself that she IS different, and that she doesn’t deserve to just be part of some bet from The Twins. Jesse decides he would ask Marie on another date after this, something proper like dinner and a movie. He is still going to try and fuck her tonight, though.
The teenagers walk from the entrance of the church to the back of the pews, then to the front of the altar while glancing and touching around. The side windows are ruined, but have remains of stain-painted glass crucifixes that are filled with gold coloring. The edges of each cross are rounded, which better fit the design of the gold and off-white windows. Someone could hardly see from the outside looking in, but the opposite direction gives full insight to the property around the building. Jesse remembers a time when that view was filled with many green trees and on one side, a playground.
“I used to look out these windows all the time, waiting for the sermon to end so I could go play with my friends outside,” Jesse smiles.
“Sounds like you didn’t pay attention to God’s word!” Marie mockingly scolds Jesse.
“Hey, I’m not the one who said they didn’t like church.”
“Well when your mother was banging half the clergyman, you just don’t like church,” Marie flatly says.
“Jeez. I’m sorry –”
“She didn’t really get with that many people, but it was obvious enough we had to stop going. I always got looks for being her daughter. The woman just likes sex, nothing is wrong with that.”
“I guess so, but I’m still sorry that you –”
“I mean, there is something wrong when you have a husband and a daughter, but addiction is addiction and now she’s better. Besides, there’s no one worthy of cheating with here. Daddy made sure of that,” Marie interrupts Jesse again.
“Are you going to let me finish one sentence? Or no?”
“I’m sorry, I do that a lot. I just don’t need an apology or sympathy,” Marie says in a tone that tells Jesse to drop the subject. The smell is only intensifying, anyway. The discomforting silence between them grows quieter as both teenagers hear, assumingly, nails crawling against the back-altar wall, accompanied with giggles and light hushes, which made the pair stop in their tracks.
“What the fuck,” Jesse whispers while looking wide-eyed at Marie. She wonders if someone is outside the building or if Jesse is trying to prank her.
“Where’s your phone? Are you playing a recording or something?” Marie asks.
“No, here, look,” Jesse passes his iPhone to Marie after unlocking it and she inspects the device. No sound. Marie looks at Jesse, then checks her phone to ensure she hadn’t accidentally done something. Nothing, either.
“What the fuck,” Marie whispers. Almost instinctually, Marie and Jesse move over to the windows to look outside. Jesse’s headlights are still on, which give a clear view of the entrance. No one is in sight, and neither are any other vehicles. The sounds persist, and Marie is more curious than nervous because the noise is beginning to annoy her.
Giggle. Small children running. Hush. Giggle. Hush. Silence. More silence, until they hear what sounds like a tall, wooden shaft hitting the floorboards. Now the sound of finger nails lightly scraping the walls begins again and Jesse looks at Marie in bewilderment.
“Are you playing a joke on me?” Jesse asks.
“I don’t know enough people in town to play a trick on you, J,” Marie flatly says. Jesse becomes frustrated with the situation, then begins to wonder if the Twins had set him up entirely. The whole prank seems perfect, put Jesse in a scary place with a beautiful woman and see him shit his pants. Brilliant bastards, Jesse thinks.
“I guess you’re right. Let’s move in, figure out what the fuck is behind this altar,” Jesse tries to sound calm and collected, but parts of him are still nervous. The movies get to him, always.
“What is with you and cursing in this church? You used to worship here!” Marie tries to make light of the increasingly morbid situation.
“Key word in that sentence is used to. God’s left this place,” Jesse decides while silently walking closer to the back altar, where the priest and the altar boys would prepare for sermons. Marie stands in hesitation, unfamiliar with her surroundings, then decides to follow Jesse. If there is something to be found, this duo will find it.
The frightening sound of long fingernails against the wall quiets down with each step the two teenagers make toward the back door, where the church office was. Or is. Jesse and Marie are unsure about what is behind the door, because scary things do not happen in their small town. The noise should be explained by an animal or something natural, but each teenager has clips from scary movies running through their mind. Nothing bad happens in Acklewood. In fact, the church burning down over a year ago is the biggest tragedy the town faced in almost twenty years. The only time the citizens of Acklewood feel true fear is at the movie theaters or during last call, when they realize the alcohol is about to run out.
“Are you afraid?” Jesse whispers to Marie as they reach the brown, weathered door. The knob of the office door appears rusty, but more noticeable than the decay are dirt traces around the handle — as if someone had recently opened this door with muddy hands.
“I’m starting to feel more concerned than true fear. What if we see a dead body? What if someone dumped their murder victim here? You have to admit, the location is prime,” Marie whispers back to Jesse. He still is unsure about how much he loves Marie’s consistent need to supply more information than wanted, because now Jesse is imagining the worst. Jesse goes into his front pant pocket, then pulls out a pair of earphones and some Juicy Fruit gum, before finally finding his handkerchief. If there is anything to find, Jesse did not want his fingerprints all over it. As Jesse goes to unlock the door with his handkerchief in hand, Marie stops him, saying, “You really own a handkerchief? What year are we in, dude?”
Jesse ignores her comment. He is on edge, frightened and curious, which is the same as Marie! Yet Jesse can hardly handle humor, he contributes anything funny in a horror film to be purely comedic relief. Ease the tension through a laugh, then scare the living hell out of the viewers. He wants answers, fuck the jokes.
The moment the door is fully opened, both teens regret their trip to this abandoned lot entirely. Neither move, the only option is to stand in disbelief. The three surrounding walls of the entrance were unlike anything Jesse had watched in a film. Blood, dirt, but mainly three dead bodies lay upon the half-burnt walls. Each body was half of a male and half of a female, though, so really six corpses are found hanging up on the walls like band posters. The split is vertical, right down the middle, as if to illustrate the symmetrical differences between a man and a woman. The image is gruesomely morbid — the bodies were not washed after their murders, showing multiple deep, bloody stab wounds as a cause of death for each body. The physique, age, and race of the victims completely differ, which seems intentional. Half of an older, chubbier white man connects to a seemingly young Asian woman, but their height is identical. Same with a young, fit black man and an older, saggy white woman — identical height. A closer look reveals the stitches between the skin of the victims, explaining how the new complete bodies could hang up for so long. The bodies are preserved well; the death date for each body is difficult to ascertain from sight.
Marie wants to scream, but she knows better. Jesse wants to cry, but he knows better. All the furniture in the office is gone except for a long fold out table, which stands directly in the center of the small space. Of course, this is hardly the focus of the room. Marie takes her iPhone out of her pocket to dial 911, so that these bodies could be found and that if there is trouble, then Marie could be found too. As she’s dialing emergency services, the back door of the office, which Jesse and the Twins speculated as an underground, secret room as children, opens. Marie hits enter on the dial pad, then stuffs her phone in her pocket and sends a quick prayer.
“God be with me, please,” Marie whispers before the man begins talking, with both the teenager’s flashlights pointed on him. Jesse is in full shock, there is absolutely nothing he can do right now except process every piece of information slowly. Marie moves closer to him, grabbing onto his hand, hoping to wake him up. They should be running to his car, not idly waiting for this mysterious man to talk!
“Isn’t our artwork beautiful?” the tall man says. Under better light, he almost appears as the stereotypical white Jesus Christ, with long brown locks and a beard, which Marie finds sickening. She’s all for innocent until proven guilty, but at this point she was sold on the idea that this man murdered these people and was going to murder her next — all for his art wall. Marie and Jesse both stay quiet.
“I asked you a question. Isn’t our artwork beautiful?” the man demands to know.
“Dead bodies on the wall of a half-burned church doesn’t seem like artwork to me,” Marie attempts to describe the scene in case the first responders are listening.
“You can’t see beauty in that?” the man glances at the still frozen Jesse, almost chuckling at how frightened he was.
“No, I can’t. We were just leaving,” Marie nudges Jesse, now red, yet still frozen. The only movement he can make is a deep swallow.
“You’re not leaving, this is a tour! Here is our museum, don’t you like it well? Our people are hungry, stay so we can be fed!” the man moves closer to Marie. She refuses to leave the church without Jesse, simply because he has the car keys.
“Who are you, then? Tell me about your art and your people,” Marie subtly reaches toward her back pocket for her pepper spray.
“I like you already, Miss Marie. I know you, but you don’t know me! They are MY people — you are right indeed. We love to eat, but only people you see. My name is Josef and they follow me. I am their Father and in them, I plant a seed. Do not try to escape us, you will not be beat. Let this go smoothly, then you can die beautifully,” Josef repeatedly chants to the teenagers. Almost as if this is a ritual, there are increasing moans and whispers of, “Let’s eat,” in the background. The scratching of nails is replaced by kicking noises on the wall. The origin of the sound is unknown to Marie. This song wakes Jesse up; he turns his head to Marie and whispers, “the spray,” while Josef chants.
Marie does not know if the rest of Josef’s followers are outside the door, but she knows she should have enough pepper spray to last the pair’s run to the car. Within a second of Jesse’s whisper, Marie pulls her small, black bottle out from her pocket and plunges at Josef, spraying directly into his eyes. Josef shrieks, then yells, “DO NOT LET THEM LEAVE! WE NEED TO EAT.”
Jesse and Marie escape the small room and feel fortunate that no one is waiting for them inside the church. Marie glances at the window and sees a group of people swarming towards Jesse’s car. She motions for Jesse to look, and his voice cracks when he says, “Fuck.”
“Listen, we need a distraction. They’re like zombies at this point,” Marie says.
“Have you seen many scary movies?” Jesse replies.
“More than you’d think. We need to be quick and we need to be decisive,” Marie is panicking.
“I’ve seen them all. We are living in an occult film. Listen, Marie, if we survive — this isn’t the last time we’ll hear from them. They chose us, okay?” Jesse quickly speaks.
“Why do you think I’m fucking scared? Come on. You freeze too much, I’m going to be the bait. You get into your car and you drive over anyone to come pick me up, okay?” Marie confidently decides.
“I’m not going to let you be bait. The bait always dies,” Jesse refuses.
“No, they don’t always. Jesse, we aren’t arguing. We have maybe one minute to make a move. When you see less people by your car, make a run for it, okay?”
“Okay, but Marie –”
“And if I don’t survive, Jesse, all I want is for you to punch every fake person who says they miss me.”
“You and the comedic relief.”
Marie smiles, then pushes the church door open and takes off her shirt. Her white bra makes Jesse so upset that this night did not go as planned, but he is in disbelief at what she is doing.
“I heard y’all were hungry… Look at how tasty I am!” Marie says while at the top steps of the church. The group of cannibalists begin running toward Marie, which she challenges by moving toward the side of the church. Marie is half-naked, running around the entire lot of the church in a zig-zag position. Jesse thinks that she appears to be running from an alligator, but he can feel his time to move is coming. He can hear Josef from the back room, saying, “I’m hungry my Jesse boy. I can smell you’re still in here…”
A quick glance at the car reveals no one around the area, then Jesse makes a run for it. Once he is only seconds away from his car, Josef tackles Jesse. His eyes are inflamed, so Josef can hardly see. He bites Jesse on his elbow during the struggle. He can hear Marie screaming, “Jesse, hurry!” and for once, he does not feel fear. Still on the ground with Josef’s heavy body on top of him, Jesse thrusts his body forward, pushing Josef to the ground. The occult leader lets out a massive moan, alerting his followers that he is in trouble. Once both feet are on the ground, Jesse stomps on Josef’s chest to ensure he’ll stay down, but also to stop his screaming. Within a few moments, Jesse is in the car with the doors locked and speeding to find Marie.
The car roughly drives onto the grass by the playground and Jesse sees Marie running, but she has many close leads. “Please, God, forgive me if I kill anyone,” Jesse says while speeding his car straight to the pathway of Marie. He hears a few bodies hitting the car and can feel that someone is laying on the roof of his car. Jesse swerves quickly, flinging the body off like he’s seen in action movies. Marie is out of breath, but only one person is behind her now. Too many of the followers stopped to aid their fellow peers or to rush to Josef’s side, easing Marie’s struggle. She turns, then pepper sprays the brown-haired girl that is three feet behind her. Jesse pulls his car up to Marie, who is almost laughing at her satisfaction in surviving.
“We really did it,” Jesse says while the two teenagers are driving quickly away from the church.
“We have to call the police, we need to make sure those people do not kill anyone else,” Marie says while pulling out her phone.
Jesse and Marie have not spoken since Saturday night. After Marie called the police, the two went to the station and waited patiently to be interviewed about the occult. The police instead asked the pair to leave because the church was corpse-free and there was no evidence of anyone on that property except for Jesse and Marie.
Marie is waiting at Jesse’s locker after lunch.
“We need to talk,” she says.
“You don’t think I know that? I haven’t even been in touch with the Twins, my parents think I’m mentally insane,” Jesse complains.
“You won’t find them here. Stacy, the one in our English class, told me they dropped out of school.”
“What? That can’t be true, they’d tell me that!”
“They were absent, Mark Valentine made a comment, then their teacher said that their father withdrew them without much word Sunday morning.”
“You don’t think…”
“You were right, we were chosen Jesse. No one is going to believe us, we have to fight them ourselves,” Jesse thinks Marie sounds irrational. Hasn’t she seen the scary movies?
“No, I’m not going to die for this.”
“This morning I got a note on my front door, Jesse,” Marie begins to speak as Jesse opens his locker and a note falls out.
Marie is frightened and hopes that Jesse’s letter is different than hers, but goes pale at the identical message written with dried blood.
TIME IS TICKING, CHILDREN. WE’RE VERY HUNGRY.